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‘Strange’ casts pic spell

Clarke's best-selling tome drawing H'w'd interest

“The Lord of the Rings” and the “Harry Potter” franchise ignited Hollywood’s love affair with British fantasy books. So it’s no surprise that several studios are chasing the rights to “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell,” a novel by first-timer Susanna Clarke about two feuding magicians set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars.

It might sound like a children’s book, but its 800 pages — dense, erudite and Dickensian — are definitely for grownups. Published Sept. 8 in the U.S., it debuted at No. 9 in the New York Times bestseller list and is rising to No. 3 this week, an extraordinary achievement for a debut Brit novel not even out in its own country yet. It appears Sept. 30 in Blighty, and is already on the long list for the Booker Prize.

“What’s remarkable about this book is that it’s becoming a publishing phenomenon on three fronts that are normally distinct — as a literary work, as a fantasy novel and as a bestseller,” says Nick Marston, Clarke’s agent at Curtis Brown.

He’s being bombarded with calls and emails from Hollywood producers. His original plan was to wait until the book’s U.K. publication to solicit bids, but his hand looks likely to be forced sooner by studio suitors.

Predictably, “Lord of the Rings” producer New Line and “Harry Potter” studio Warners are beating loudest at the door, along with DreamWorks and Sony. Marston says the deal won’t just be about price, but also the degree of creative control for Clarke. “It’s set in Britain, and I really think it should be developed over here,” he says.

“Jonathan Strange” took Clarke, a 43-year-old editor of cookbooks, a decade to write. She’s now working on a follow-up with some of the same characters, making the book even more tempting to filmmakers as a potential franchise.

Hands delivers “Rocket”

Guy Hands, the swashbuckling venture capitalist whose $1 billion million takeover of Odeon and UCI has made him Europe’s biggest cinema owner, is commonly described as a newcomer to the movie business. But that’s not strictly true.

A couple of years back, Hands, who heads Terra Firma Capital Partners, dipped into his own pocket to back “Crocodile Dundee 3,” as well as bankrolling two smaller British films from producer Mark Shorrock, with mixed results.

“Crocodile Dundee 3” reportedly made Hands a profit. But David Blair‘s “Tabloid,” a satire on trash TV starring Matthew Rhys, John Hurt and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, seemed to have disappeared without trace after Hands hosted a flashy party at the pic’s East London location during the production in early 2001. It has finally been picked up by a few foreign distribs, though not in Britain.

There’s more hope for “The Rocket Post,” a long-delayed $10 million romance about a young German scientist testing his technology on a remote Scottish island just before WWII. The pic, also shot in 2001, popped up in this year’s Cannes market after a troubled three years of post-production. In August it won the Grand Prize at the Stony Brook Film Festival in Long Island.

OK, that’s not exactly the Palme d’Or, but it’s some kind of a success for a movie that seemed cursed to remain forever in limbo when its 56-year-old director Stephen Whittaker, making his feature debut, died in the middle of editing.

Hands and Shorrock wrangled long and hard over its completion. But in the end it was Hands who held the purse strings, and his vision for the movie won out. He held some test screenings in New York after Whittaker’s death, and subsequently paid for reshoots.

Hands even coined a new authorial credit for himself — “creative director,” as well as executive producer — and had to be talked out of putting it in the film’s opening titles.

The surprise is that this hexed experience didn’t put him off movies for good. Perhaps it taught him the bricks-and-mortar end of the biz is where the real money is made. But now, at least, he should have the muscle to get “Rocket Post” booked into a few cinemas.

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